Uncertainty over Exit Date for Canadian Troops in Afghanistan

Just because there is no master plan for getting Afghanistan on its feet doesn't mean nobody plans. But the planning is a furtive, piecemeal business, better suited to pointing out the contradictions of this bizarre conflict than to tracing a dependable path through them to peace.
Just because there is no master plan for getting Afghanistan on its feet doesn't mean nobody plans. But the planning is a furtive, piecemeal business, better suited to pointing out the contradictions of this bizarre conflict than to tracing a dependable path through them to peace.

Uncertainty over Exit Date for Canadian Troops in Afghanistan

Just because there is no master plan for getting Afghanistan on its feet doesn't mean nobody plans. But the planning is a furtive, piecemeal business, better suited to pointing out the contradictions of this bizarre conflict than to tracing a dependable path through them to peace.

One of the surprises when I visited Afghanistan last month is that there is simply no commonly endorsed road map for helping the country until it can govern itself and everyone else can go home. Well, there's the Afghanistan Compact, a five-year plan that came out of an international summit in London last year, but it is sketchy and already outpaced by events. "All illegal armed groups will be disbanded by end-2007 in all provinces." Good luck with that.

"We would like to see ourselves" - that is, the multinational military coalition in Afghanistan - "subordinate to a strategic campaign plan that doesn't currently exist," a senior NATO officer said last week in Kabul. Instead of a plan there is Babel: 37 foreign countries, including Canada, contributing troops to NATO's 41,000-soldier International Security Assistance Force (ISAF); international umbrella groups with their own agendas, like the United Nations and the European Union; hundreds of non-governmental aid organizations like CARE and Doctors Without Borders; and the fractured and factious institutions of Afghan civil society itself. Often these groups don't get along. Most NGOs won't talk to soldiers for fear of becoming insurgents' targets. The assorted troop-donor countries define the conflict differently. They train Afghan soldiers with different training protocols, so your average Afghan buck private must unlearn some of what he learned from his last trainer when he moves on to his next. It's a bit of a mess.

And yet a few people try to imagine how everybody would get along if everybody did. "This one is unclassified, but it's unreleased," one middle-ranking military officer said on a recent sunny afternoon as he passed sheets around a picnic table to me and others in a leafy park inside ISAF's Kabul base camp. "You can see it, but you can't keep it." Dozens of agencies would need to sign off on the chart in question before it could have any official weight. That's just never going to happen.

The document I saw shows the work that must be accomplished, not only by soldiers but also by civilians and governments, if Afghanistan can ever be safe enough to stand on its own. Boxes with labels like "Independent Media" and "Progressive Governance Extended to Districts" are sprinkled across the page. Events soldiers may help with, but can never deliver alone.

At the left hand of the chart is today, late 2007, in an Afghanistan where violence is increasing and social and economic progress is measurable, but halting. Dates unfold across the top: 2010, when it would be nice if conditions had improved in a dozen measurable ways; 2011, when six or eight other criteria should be met; and a final state of blessed normality, when the Afghan government delivers fair service without violent harassment to all 34 provinces and the country's army and police are its own best defence.

The date at the right hand of the chart reads, "20??". Not even a maverick planner dares to pretend he can know when the job will be done.

Last week Gen. Rick Hillier, chief of defence staff of the Canadian Forces, landed in trouble when he suggested Canada's involvement in Afghanistan might last more than a decade, a week after the Conservative government's Throne Speech seemed to ask for only four more years. But Hillier would fit right in in Kabul, where every officer I asked had a different answer to the deceptively simple question: How long will this take? Ten years was at the short end of the betting pool. A European officer whose rank is comparable to Hillier's replied: "We will have to be here certainly more than 20 years." Most people, even when they hazard a guess, first grimace and toss their hands up. Nobody on the ground puts much stock in predictions, including their own.

I asked the officer with the unclassified-but-unreleased chart whether his timeline to a peaceful Afghanistan was getting longer or shorter as he put the planning exercise through successive iterations. He said any box on the timeline could move left or right depending on the assumptions behind it. Military planning in an environment of radical uncertainty is a thought exercise, not a stone tablet from the mountaintop.

"But here's an interesting thing," the officer said. He pointed to a box, currently positioned late in 2009, which read: "Narcotics Influences Isolated from GOA" - the Government of Afghanistan. Of course it's a laudable goal: an Afghanistan in which the billions of dollars in opium traffic are reduced or walled off to the point where they have no influence on the country's politics.

This box and the assumptions behind it were the object of an interagency meeting with what the officer called "robust UNAMA input," which meant that somebody from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan gave him an earful. "It was pointed out that if the next elections are bought and paid for by narco-dollars, we will have bought ourselves a four- or five-year delay in achieving all our critical objectives."

The next presidential election is, on current schedule, 1½ years away, with legislative elections to follow in 2010. Afghanistan is the world's biggest heroin producer. Much of its south and east are nearly lawless. How, precisely, does ISAF plan to stop drug lords from playing in those elections?

The officer did not have a ready answer. A frontal collision between drug-fuelled corruption and a government in desperate need of renewal "is the poison pill for the whole campaign design," he said. "And it's a poison pill we've already taken. We need to figure out some way to get it out of our mouths."

Or out of Afghanistan's. For if one conclusion can be drawn from my week in Afghanistan and two days in Pakistan as a guest of NATO's Public Diplomacy Division, it is that "the West" is in less danger of losing in Afghanistan than Afghanistan is. Its weak and compromised government. Its uncertain domestic army. The poisonously corrupted branches of its justice system: bribe-extorting police, terrified judges, stinking and overflowing prisons. We can prop this regime up indefinitely, and a broad consensus of Afghan opinion hopes we will keep our hand in for a long while yet. But if Afghan authorities do not start doing a better job of their own, our efforts will have done little good.

Coalition soldiers can operate almost anywhere, and in most places where they move, they help bring new roads and clinics and schools that are making a real difference in ordinary Afghans' lives. A vicious assortment of Taliban, warlords, crime bosses and dead-enders will continue to kill NATO soldiers, including Canadians. But these "Opposing Military Forces" are long past posing a serious threat to ISAF's military dominance.

But to some extent, so what? I could not find a single military commander in Afghanistan or at NATO headquarters in Brussels who believes battlefield dominance is nearly enough to ensure a stable Afghanistan. Coalition planners like to talk about a "comprehensive approach" to Afghan self-sufficiency that emphasizes three pillars: "security," delivered essentially by soldiers, first ours and then eventually Afghanistan's; "reconstruction and development," the work of soldiers, NGOs, Afghans and outsiders working together, sometimes clumsily; and "governance," the consent of the governed in a society ruled by laws, not by bribes and threats.

The problem, as NATO's latest classified Periodic Mission Review says, is that "progress in security operations is outpacing progress in the other pillars." Put another way: Afghans cannot trust their government. Sometimes they can't even find it. And they often have reason to fear it, or the uniformed criminals who too often act in its name. In the race to save Afghanistan, even the mightiest armies in the world have been reduced to worried bystanders.

One morning during my visit, we rose before dawn and rode an American Chinook helicopter northeast from Kandahar to Qalat, the little capital of the neighbouring Zabul province. This is the home of Provincial Reconstruction Team Qalat, a joint U.S. Army-Air Force base with Romanian support that serves as the ISAF anchor for the thinly populated region. Our hosts' plan was to drive an hour up Highway One to a village called Morad Khan Kalay ( "Too many freakin' consonants," said the sergeant who briefed us) to ask the locals whether they could use any improvements to local infrastructure or other help.

Simply leaving any ISAF base is tense work for the soldiers involved. They plan meticulously, lock and load their weapons as they pass the gate, and rehearse plans to escape or riposte any conceivable attack. Our mid-morning drive involved a printed mission plan, seven up-armoured Hummvee trucks with turret-mounted machine guns (more than usual, it must be said, because my fellow guests and I needed transport and protection), and "very stringent abort criteria": at any sign of trouble the soldiers were to retreat with the rest of us in tow. On this day, any fighting would be left to "our kinetic brethren," the base commander, Lt.-Col. James Bramble, said, referring to purpose-designed combat teams.

To be on the safe side, the villagers of Morad Khan Kalay were not told to expect us. The visit, the first from coalition troops that anyone could recall, would be a surprise. The Taliban are active in the region. On the highway we drove past a half-dozen burned-out hulks of transport trucks, part of what Bramble called a "Taliban information operation" designed to deliver no more "information" than "Boo!"

At the village the Hummers circled in an open area and pointed the gun turrets outward. An Afghan interpreter, who had not been told where he would be riding until the trip began, translated as Staff Sgt. Marco Villalta queried a half-dozen village men.

For guys whose morning had been interrupted by a caravan of gun-toting American soldiers, the men of Morad Khan Kalay handled it all with equanimity. They could use an irrigation ditch and a footbridge that didn't wash out every winter, they said. Bug spray for their modest crops would help. A clinic, here or nearby, would be appreciated. And the school was usually closed because the Taliban leaves "night letters" on teachers' doors, warning them of reprisals if they show up.

Villalta said the soldiers would take these concerns to the governor of Zabul. The villagers were startled. No, no, they said. The interpreter explained: "They don't trust the governor. They'll trust you guys, but not the governor."

Which is nice to hear, unless you'd like to go home some day and leave these people to their governors. In a Kandahar briefing, officers from ISAF's Regional Command South opened with a quotation from Isaf Rahimi, a former Afghan deputy minister: "The Taliban are filling a gap in the south created by a weak government rather than a strong insurgency." RC South, where most of the Canadian soldiers are, covers six Afghan provinces and one-third the surface area of France. A civilian adviser listed the six governors and added, "Most of these guys are bad."

Why? Because when Hamid Karzai became president he didn't have the power to stare down or fight down a succession of regional warlords. So he has co-opted them, warts and all, because at least they are not the Taliban. That is setting the bar perilously low.

Sarah Chayes is a former National Public Radio reporter who has lived in Kandahar for five years, working with NGOs and running a small co-operative business, Arghand, that makes and sells fancy soap. "People's anger with the government is just absolutely overflowing," she said. "I think Karzai tried very weakly, in the beginning, to rein a bunch of these guys in. He's totally buckled. He's presiding over the gang rape of his country."

The Western forces exert what pressure they can. The British and Dutch made the removal of the old governors of Helmand and Uruzgan a precondition of their forces' deployment in those provinces. But ISAF is trapped by its own affected modesty: like Sgt. Villalta in the little village, the coalition is adamant in conceiving and depicting its work as simply supporting the lead role of the Afghan government. "Everything we do is Afghan-led, GIROA credit," one general said, referring to the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

But nobody would want to take credit for much of what is done in this government's name. The Afghan National Army is making considerable progress. But the Afghan police force, neglected for too long by coalition planners, is a wreck.

There is no tradition of impartial, professional policing in Afghanistan to begin with. Police were local bullies, doling out intimidation, extortion, revenge and occasionally even rough justice in the manner of Gene Hackman's sheriff in the Clint Eastwood western film Unforgiven. Serious help from outsiders has been perilously slow in coming.

In December 2001, the United Nations gave support roles in five key tasks to outside governments. The British would be responsible for helping control illegal drugs, principally opium and heroin; the Americans would help build the army; the Italians would reorganize the judiciary; the Japanese would disarm irregular militias; and the Germans would train the police.

A flawed plan from the start, one European official said last week. Countries not named in charge of these missions assumed they had no need to pitch in. Countries that were given the missions were suspicious of outside help. The Germans put their effort into training senior police managers well. Ordinary cops had little or no training. By last year it was clear the police were shirking hard jobs and skimming massively off the top. The Americans briefly tried rushing police recruits through two-week training courses. "That was probably worse than nothing," one civilian adviser in Kandahar said. Only lately has there been a concerted push by the Americans, the Canadians and other coalition forces to devote at least as many resources to police training as to the army.

It must be said that Afghan police do not have it easy, far from it. They are notoriously ill-paid, though salary reform has improved their lot marginally within the past year. With ISAF forces hunkered down and well protected, the police have become choice targets for insurgents. By some accounts 1,000 police have been killed this year, double last year's figure and 20 times the army's casualty rate.

Underpaid and hung out on the street with targets on their backs, many officers gather rosebuds while they may. And there is a lot of money rattling around Afghanistan. Billions of dollars, of course, come from the opium trade. But the Afghan government's own Draft Anti-Corruption Strategy also fingers "unprecedented inflows of aid," with pressure to spend it quickly and often lax financial controls, as another source of ready cash. Police checkpoints have become such a lucrative source of bribery income that the right to staff them is traded on the black market like commodities.

Here's a story that was reported to me as fact by one coalition general. A Canadian soldier is doing mentor duty at a police checkpoint near Kandahar. There are some Afghan police and an interpreter for the Canadian. One Afghan police officer pulls a car over and leans in to chat with the driver. The Canadian asks the interpreter what's going on. The interpreter explains: "He says, 'See that Canadian soldier? If you don't give me money he's going to shoot you.' "

The police may be bad, argues Lt.-Col. Grant Davies, a British legal adviser to RC South, but the courts and corrections system are "shorter legs of a three-legged stool." As his reward for tough decisions and occasional glowering stares from nasty characters, a typical British judge earns seven times his country's average salary. His Afghan counterpart pulls down something like $80 a month, less than half what the semi-literate employees of Sarah Chayes's soap factory make. They have to decide whether to send serious criminals, many of them battle-hardened Islamist insurgents, to jails so overcrowded that one prisoner must come out for each that enters. Often convicts come out the back end and telephone the police or judges who put them in the front: "I'm out now and I know where you are."

All of these vices, Davies said, "undermine the government. And that's the very point of an insurgency." In other words, the parlous state of the Afghan government does a good part of the insurgents' work for them.

Chayes, the former journalist, said ISAF's troop-lending countries need to stop making excuses for the Afghan government and confront it with "a really consistent message: 'You are screwing up our battle space by being a crappy government. You are creating three Taliban for every Taliban we catch.' "

One high-ranking ISAF military officer had a similar thought. "I have long thought the message we should send to the Afghan people should be the image of a coalition soldier holding a rifle in one hand and a shovel in the other and saying, 'I've got the will and the capability to use either. Which would you have me use?' Now I think it's time to replace the rifle with a crescent wrench. And the message now should be, to the Afghan leadership, 'We are gonna take the training wheels off this bicycle. You boys had better start pedalling.' "

The patronizing attitude of an overbearing Western soldier? Perhaps, but Daoud Sultanzoy makes almost the same point. He is a prominent independent member of parliament, urbane, perfectly fluent in English, a critic of Karzai's regime. "Six years have been spent on baby steps with this government," Sultanzoy said. "You've been spoonfeeding them and they don't even want to chew."

The 2009-2010 election cycle represents a crucial test for Afghanistan's ability to govern itself and for the international community's ability to help, Sultanzoy said. "This nation has never had a smooth transition of power. If we once again push this guy [Karzai] down the nation's throat, we won't even be able to buy time and say better leadership is coming. If we let them down this time, they will lose faith in democracy or any message that your nations are sending to this part of the world."

By this point, a lot of readers must be wondering whether there is any point in Canadian troops even sticking around for the end of this film. I want to guard against giving any impression that I would believe my answer to be definitive or blessed by the special insights of the elect. I was in Afghanistan only for several days, a guest of NATO, sleeping in ISAF barracks and hearing, for the most part, experts who had been selected for me. In a widely-noted Washington Post article in August, that paper's former Baghdad correspondent Jonathan Finer mocked the "Green Zone Blinders" of VIPs who swan into a war zone for a few days and come home regaling everyone with Olympian pronouncements about "What I Saw." It is too tempting to succumb to the fallacy of the smart alecks in the Holiday Inn Express commercials: I don't actually know how to defuse an insurgency, but I did sleep in an ISAF barracks last week.

But for whatever it is worth, nobody I talked to in Afghanistan wants coalition forces in general, or Canadian forces in particular, to leave any time soon. This was true of the soldiers themselves, of their colleagues from other countries, of ordinary Afghans like the villagers of Morad Khan Kalay, of the country's minister of the interior and of opposition politicians who think the Interior Ministry is the worst in the Afghan government.

Just outside the main Kandahar base, I visited a former base for the Soviet occupation that now stands as the barracks for an Afghan army battalion being trained by members of Canada's Royal 22d Regiment. Dave Querry, a bearded 35-year-old sergeant from Trois-Rivières, was showing Afghan colleagues how to stock and manage a supply depot.

Unlike the police, the Afghan army, still not up to the troop strength or the level of complex training it needs to operate alone, has been making significant gains. "If you tell them there's a bad guy somewhere up in the mountains near the Pakistan border, they go up there and they shoot and they don't back off if someone shoots back," one officer said.

Querry said he would rather have his buddies from the Van Doos at either shoulder if he goes into combat. But he has done operations with the Afghans and he will again, and they are worthy allies. He wants to stick around and finish the job of preparing them for heavy responsibilities. "For me it wouldn't be honest, somehow, to come lend a hand here and then leave before we've finished the job."

Jahid Mohseni is a partner, with his two brothers, in Moby Media, a Kabul start-up that runs immensely popular TV and radio networks. Moby's Tolo TV network has done hard-hitting investigative reporting, at real risk to its reporters' safety, into government corruption. "I think if you asked, 'Should all international troops leave?' most people here would have a coronary," Mohseni said.

And while the danger and, in some corners of the country, the chaos have been increasing, so have the more promising signs. Afghanistan's GDP has doubled since 2002, as have average incomes. A Johns Hopkins University study shows that infant mortality, while still higher than in Chad, is at least down 18 per cent in the last five years. This improvement in the quality of living, a UN official said, "is one of the key phenomena that has helped to underpin the continued consent for an international presence here."

It is surprising how familiar non-Canadians in Afghanistan, especially in the south, are with details of the Canadian military deployment: the particular contribution of Canadian troops, the punishingly high level of Canadian casualties, the twists and turns of our domestic debate. Put plainly, Canada's coalition partners are worried. They recognize that Canadians have the right to decide the deployment of Canadian soldiers. They understand that much of the sentiment for pulling out of Afghanistan stems, not from concern over the cost to Canada, but from the nagging worry that our presence in Afghanistan might be hurtful to Afghans.

This opinion is respected on the ground, but is simply not widely shared. Few countries can spare troops at the level Canada has contributed. The Dutch seem ready to extend their own similar mission, but as they prepare to reduce their footprint by only a few hundred troops, they have had to scramble for replacements, a few Georgians here, a few Slovaks there.

In naming the high-level panel led by John Manley to go to Afghanistan and ask about our role there, Stephen Harper must have known that in a not particularly nefarious way, the fix was in. Anyone asking the question in Afghanistan will be told, often and with fervour, that Canada's contribution is still needed.

It will not be an easy decision. The danger is high and the chance of success is far from sure. A setback, like the drug-financed election scenario, could scramble everyone's schedule. So it does no particular good to wonder how long Canada's mission should last, or to fuss when one leader says four years and another says 10. Neither can know.

The real question is simpler and less lovely: are we in or are we out? If we're in, we are in until the mission is done, until the Afghan army is strong enough and the police force closer to being set right after a half-decade's neglect, and the length of that commitment may better be measured in decades than months. If we are wasting our time, if our presence does more harm than good, it is satirical for us to leave our soldiers in the field a day longer.

Afghanistan has come so far from chaos and lies, still today, so far from peace that it is time for clear thinking and hard decisions. Canadians do the Afghan people no good, and ourselves no honour, if we shrink from those decisions.

Maclean's November 12, 2007